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Vaccine Tourism: A closer look at vaccine residency requirements in S.C., neighboring states

Updated: Feb. 10, 2021 at 11:25 PM EST
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HORRY COUNTY, S.C. (WMBF) – Across the country, the lifesaving COVID-19 vaccine supply remains scarce, while the demand to get it remains high.

On top of the high demand, the process of getting the vaccine has becoming conflicting, confusing and frustrating. Thousands of people remain on waiting lists or simply can’t even find an appointment across South Carolina.

It has many asking why those who live out-of-state have been able to get the vaccine over South Carolinians.

Robyn Molloy, a retired teacher from New York, said the pandemic has been devastating. Loved ones have been lost, and her medical condition causes even more worry about what the virus could do.

But as a 61-year-old lung cancer survivor, she and her husband are waiting for their turn to get the vaccine in South Carolina.

“I knew everybody had their tier and you had to wait. What got me though is when I first realized that they’re doing ‘snowbirds,’” she said.

Currently, South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control said there are no residency requirements in place. It’s a question that has come up for months, but the state has remained firm.

“There are no geographic restrictions,” Dr. Brannon Traxler, interim director of public health, had explained in January. “We need the entire country and the entire world vaccinated to really stop the spread of this virus.”

Molloy fears that the lack of restrictions could mean that full-time and part-time residents in South Carolina could have to compete with someone simply hopping the state line to get the shot and then return home.

This was a common problem reported initially in the state of Florida. Thousands flocked to the Sunshine State even though they didn’t live there.

State Sen. Luke Rankin, (R) - Horry County, said what’s happened in Florida is nowhere near the same as what we’re currently seeing in South Carolina.

“They have a very high rate there, and they have in fact now required residency proof before they administer their vaccines, again in Florida,” Rankin said. “So far, so good here.”

But, if state-hopping for the vaccine becomes a problem, “then we should insist on residency as a requirement,” he said.

WMBF Investigates asked DHEC for the data - to show who exactly is receiving these doses.

Residency of those who have received vaccine in South Carolina.
Residency of those who have received vaccine in South Carolina.(SCDHEC)

As of February 9, DHEC said 540,289 doses had been administered to a South Carolinian, and 15,820 of those shots have gone to people from North Carolina, Georgia, and other states. Nearly 11,000 doses did not have a state noted.

At least 2.79% percent of the grand total number of doses given have gone to an out-of-state resident.

Rankin said the overall complaint he’s been hearing from constituents is why the vaccine hasn’t been as available to more groups in the Palmetto State, compared to others.

This week, South Carolina opened the doors of eligibility to people 65 years of age and up - but it’s a move that our bordering states started weeks ago.

In North Carolina, people 65 years of age and older have had access to the vaccine since mid-January.

Georgia is coming up on almost a month of offering the vaccine to this group as well.

Then you have states like New Jersey, where people ages 16 to 64 with medical conditions are already stepping up for the chance to get the shot.

But Molloy said, though she still has ties to the New England area, the state told her residency requirements would prevent her from being able to get it.

“But after I thought about it. It’s almost like being hypocritical because I’m doing what the snowbirds would do, or other people would do to come here,” she said.

For some snowbirds - those who live in the state for the winter months - being eligible to get the vaccine while in South Carolina has certainly caused a sigh of relief.

Bill Mealey and Jeanine Carazo have been vacationing to Surfside Beach for over a decade now and were able to receive their first shot during their annual trip.

“If they told us we couldn’t have it, we would’ve packed up and been out of here; there’s no doubt in my mind,” Mealey said. “I would have to go back to Pennsylvania and get it wherever I could.”

But it was made available to them, no second-guessing their residency when they received their first dose. It’s something Carazo says she’s grateful for, and also makes sense.

“We mix in with their population. We go to the grocery store; we sneeze in a line at a bank even though we’re socially-distanced,” Carazo explained. “So it behooves them because we really are a part of the population to maybe allow us to have the vaccine, and so far I’m really grateful that that’s been the decision.”

Border states have varying levels of residency restrictions. A spokesperson for the Georgia’s Department of Public Health told WMBF Investigates that “the vaccine allocated to Georgia is for Georgia residents, with some limited exceptions.”

These exceptions include people who live in South Carolina but works in Georgia, snowbirds, and those residing in the state for an extended period of time as a caretaker for a relative.

North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services appears to be more open - telling us, “Federal law prohibits restricting access to the vaccine based on jurisdiction. Vaccines are a federal resource and as we know, this virus does not recognize county or state lines. All North Carolinians will benefit from as many eligible people as possible receiving the vaccine as quickly as they are able.”

Molloy said, though she feels some guilt, she just might take North Carolina up on the offer.

Rankin said he doesn’t fault people for taking to the road in pursuit of a vaccine.

“To the person who’s anxious, who’s being told it will be March, April before they can get an appointment - I don’t blame them. Get it wherever you can get it,” he said.

The vaccine’s rollout continues to be as different as each state, though the common unifying goal is to save lives against the COVID-19 pandemic.

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